Realistic Faith – Habakkuk
“This ‘vagueness,’ ‘indefinableness’ ... makes the prophecy broadly applicable.” This is one short sentence extracted from lecture notes from Prof. H.J. Schilder about the book Habakkuk. Since I read that sentence, Habakkuk has captivated me.
When reading the prophets the question often arises: “What is this all about? What is actually meant?” So too in the case of Habakkuk. In the first verses it is about injustice that the godly perpetrate on the righteous. You quickly think of terrible injustice taking place among God’s own people in Judah. But at the end of the first chapter, it looks more like it is the Chaldeans, the Babylonians, who are the ungodly referred to. The righteous are then the Judeans. The same thing is evident in chapter 2. Sometimes you think that the king of Judah, the ungodly Joakim, is being addressed, for example in verses 9 and 12 (see Jeremiah 22:13-17). But if you read about the plundering and eradication of many people’s (verses 8 and 10), you think of the Chaldeans again.
Such vagueness can irritate you as a Bible reader. But Schilder’s comment made clear to me that this vagueness may have a purpose. Nobody perpetrating injustice can think “this has nothing to do with me” when reading Habakkuk. Whether you belong to God’s people or not, you will be confronted with injustice close to home.
Later, when I started to read Habakkuk in Hebrew, I came up against more vagueness and puzzles. How should I translate chapter 2:7a for example? The Dutch 1951 Bible Translation has “shall those who bite you not suddenly rise up?” But instead of “bite” you can also translate it with “pay interest”. In Hebrew, the same word is used. An irritating problem for the exegete? Not at all! The problem disappears as soon as you see that the text is deliberately ambiguous. The text wants both meanings to be maintained: “your debtors will come up against you and bite you like dogs!”
Rejoicing Amidst Oppression
Literarily, the prophecy of Habakkuk has been put together in a sophisticated way. But is it because of this that is appeals to us? In any case it is a realistic book. It does not make reality better than it is. The misery and the injustice in the world are not disguised. Habakkuk struggles with this. He asks very recognizable questions about it. He brings these before the Lord frankly: “Why do you show me iniquity and cause me to see trouble?” (NKJV). Habakkuk has understood that God will intervene. He also sees that the situation will not improve, but soon grow worse: why do you “hold your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?” (1:13).
The well known verses at the end of the book are realistic too:
Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines ... yet I will rejoice in the LORD. Habakkuk 3:17-18
You might think: “That’s easy to say, Habakkuk, but just you wait until there really is nothing growing on the trees, and there is nothing else in the field and the stalls are empty. Will you still say these words then?” But this thought is not called for. Habakkuk is no smooth talker. He really sees the situation before him: the gangs of Chaldeans are plundering the land and leaving everything bare (3:16). And still he says: “I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” In these words, Habakkuk speaks from a realism born of faith. He takes the reality of oppression and pointless violence absolutely seriously. It is because of this that he says he will rejoice, not due to visible circumstances, but in the LORD Himself.
Only One Certainty
In Habakkuk’s day, all certainties fell away. Only one remained: the LORD. God, who showed Habakkuk in a vision that He would come to save His people (3:13). When the vision ended, Habakkuk saw nothing more of it. But he kept on believing it. God himself, His Word, was enough for him.
In this way, Habakkuk was a righteous man. Somebody who lived as that other familiar verse from Habakkuk says: “the righteous shall live by his faith” (2:4). With this word God wanted to show his children the way and encourage them. Around them they saw only arrogant people, who did their own thing and went unpunished. They saw nothing of God’s promised intervention. Or rather, they had the serious impression that things were only becoming worse. Then God let them be spoken to: the only viable way is that of faith. Faith which does not deny all the misery, but still remains faithful to God, nonetheless, and holds on to what He has said. He asks for patience, but He does not leave it at that. He is coming, that is sure (2:3).
Realistic faith. That is what Habakkuk exercised when he brought his complaints frankly before God. And at the same time he said:
You are of purer eyes than to behold evil. And cannot look on wickedness. That is how I know you, the Holy One. As holy as you have ever been, as holy as you will always be.Habakkuk 1:12-13
Indeed, God has remained the same. He no longer wanted to see our evil. He removed it through the death of His own Son, Jesus Christ. He is our righteousness and our life, through faith. Faith that has but one certainty: God Himself and his work, in his Son.
This is realistic faith: realizing that there is only One who is for you. But that is more than enough. Enough to be able to rejoice, even though everything falls away. Isn’t it true: you rejoice in God Himself, as New Testament congregation, together with Habakkuk and the people of the old covenant. Just as the end of the book shows:
To the Chief Musician. With my stringed instruments.